This novel is a tossed salad of ingredients that I like very much and those that leave me wanting something more. After reading a number of reviews of Amy Tan novels I felt that I should choose which one I wanted to read with some care, as it sounded as if the themes were very similar from one novel to the next.
Perhaps my favorite element is the relationship between the daughter, Ruth, and her mother, LuLing. It becomes apparent within only a few pages that LuLing is a very opinionated, domineering woman, and anyone who has a mother (aunt, sister, neighbor, etc.) of similar makeup can not help but identify with Ruth. However, as the story progresses Ruth, and the reader, begin to see that LuLing is suffering from Alzheimers.
As Ruth faces an apex in her life of her various relationships and her career, she also, by means of a memoir written by her mother some years before, comes to see beyond the domineering yet failing woman she has always known.
After a rather slow beginning, the novel finally gains steam as we travel back in time to the China of LuLing’s youth. Aside from the plot, which I enjoyed immensely, I loved how I was forced to completely reassess my picture of LuLing. I gained a new respect for her and was reminded that elderly people often have fascinating pasts that their frail exteriors fail to divulge. Day to day life in early 20th century China was very well depicted and the story of the Peking Man was nicely woven into the story, lending a fun historical element which was also tied in with the theme of Chinese medicine.
Things which I would have liked to have seen fleshed out a bit more included the history of China in the time in which LuLing grew up, and Ruth’s experience as an Asian-American. She seemed to have a normal American upbringing-I didn’t feel any culture clash at all, which seemed odd to me. There were a number of relationships which seemed very cliched to me, such as that of Ruth with her very stereotypical step-daughters and Ruth’s relationship with her agent.
Overall, the strong points definitely outweighed the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed this read. I am a little hesitant to pick up another book of Ms. Tan’s, as I have been warned that they are all fairly similar, but I would certainly recommend her work to anyone who has not read one of her novels and who has an interest in Chinese culture and Chinese Americans.